Saturday, January 28, 2012

CS 169 x 50,000 == ?

Along with Dave Patterson and Koushik Sen, I’m teaching CS 169 Software Engineering at Berkeley this spring (Jan-May 2012).

As with previous times I’ve taught the class, students will learn fundamental SW engineering techniques in the context of using agile methods to develop SaaS using Rails.  (High buzzword quotient for that sentence.)  This is the fifth time we’ve done a SaaS-oriented class and the second time that the official CS 169 offering has been taught this way, and we’ve been happy with the results.

But some major things are new this time around.  First, Dave and I are writing a textbook that we hope will allow others to teach this course.  The alpha edition, which is missing some chapters, is available now in print and Kindle formats (I’ll blog later about our experience self-publishing it).  Writing the book has also helped better organize the lecture material.

Second, Github and Google join the list of companies who are being super-cool in connecting the students in the course with great services/products at their own expense, and/or providing great guest speakers to come talk about life in the real SW world.  (Current list already included Pivotal Labs and Heroku.)

Third and scariest, Andrew Ng at Stanford persudaded us to offer the first 5 weeks of the course using the online-learning infrastructure he and Daphne Koller pioneered last year.  Anyone can sign up for free at saas-class.org —and so far over 53,000 people have!  Holy s**t.  Even with 90% attrition, 5,300 people would be more than I’ve cumulatively taught in my whole life.

Basically, we’ve refactored our 70-minute on-campus lectures into 6-7 ten-minute chunks each, which Andrew recommended as a near-optimal quantum.  In their system, each video chunk is supposed to include one or two self-assessment questions (multiple choice) that the student must answer correctly before proceeding, kind of like when you go to traffic school online to get a ticket wiped from your record.  I had already been getting good results using peer instruction sporadically in lecture, so we just systematized it to include a peer instruction question at the end of every chunk of lecture material; these same questions become the in-video self-assessment questions.

At this scale, everything has to be optimized for automatic grading and evaluation.  (Although the on-campus enrollment for CS 169 right now is 108, which is about triple its typical size, so I had already been thinking about auto-grading and design-for-gradability even before the online course happened.)  I’ll write more about that shortly.  But meanwhile, if you’re off-campus and interested, go ahead and sign up—hey, what’s one more?

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